Friday, November 26, 2010


When I was a senior in college I took a course in which we read some essays by the experimental composer John Cage. Of course Cage is most famous for 4'33'', in which the musician or musicians on stage sit in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds (you can watch a video of it here).

This piece seems like the kind of artistic trickery that people like to complain about in modern art, but I thought that one of the theories behind the piece was fascinating. While the musicians on stage might sit in silence, the “music” of the piece would come from all the incidental noises that are always happening in a concert hall: programs rustling, bodies shifting in seats, people coughing, and so on. One of Cage's interests was the introduction of chance and accident into music, and this piece represents the ultimate example of that idea.

I remember, after reading Cage's theories, that occasionally I would find myself at a college party, stuck in a boring conversation, and my mind would drift upwards until I found myself listening to the noises of the party as a whole—music in the background, people talking, bottles clinking, doors opening and shutting—as if it were some kind of Cage-ian symphony. Occasionally now I will still find myself doing this when I am in the midst of a large crowd.

All of this comes as a prelude to correcting my previous posts on the practice and aims of meditation. Part of that correction came from Melissa Myozen Blacker, one of the leaders of the Boundless Way Zen group; part of it came from a documentary I watched on the life of Buddha, as well as reading Karen Armstrong's biography of him.

I suggested previously that the practice of focusing on the breath, and the goal of meditation as a whole, was to empty the mind. As Melissa pointed out to me in an e-mail, though, emptying the mind really only comes when we are sleeping (and sometimes not even then!) or in a trance state. It suggests that Buddhists seek to escape all thought.

What Buddhists seek instead, as I have come to learn, is “mindfulness.”

As it happens, the talk at this past Monday's Boundless Way Zen session, which was given by David Rynick, helped clarify this for me. David explained that his own Zen teacher had recently told him of a new technique he used in helping people learn about meditation. It was a game called “I notice,” and it simply consisted of noticing and articulating what was happening inside and around you while you were meditating.

So, for example: “I notice that my shoulder is sore . . . I notice that it's warm in this room . . . I notice a car just drove by outside.” As we spend more and more time being mindful of our experiences in the present moment, we should find that the habit of noticing allows us to gain some emotional distance from our thoughts. We think them; but we notice that, like all things in the world, they are transitory. They come and go, and lose some of the power they have to cause us distress or anxiety.

In some ways this habit of noticing may seem the exact opposite of trying to empty one's mind—and perhaps it is. But the result is quite similar: noticing puts your mind in the present, and not in the past or future, which are our main sources of anxiety and worry.

We spend so much of our time fretting about the future, near and distant, or worrying about the effects of our past actions, or the ways in which they will flower into the future. But we live only in the present, and so if we can turn our minds to the present, according to the Buddha, we will find there our best source of happiness and fulfillment. Even when we find suffering and pain in our thoughts, we are better off noticing it, acknowledging it, and then letting it pass on.

Thanks to Melissa and David for clarifying this for me—and I still probably don't have it quite right. Stay tuned for further corrections.

But this has been one of the great pleasures of this book project for me, and has consistently been the greatest source of pleasure in my life—I am always finding something new to learn, or some correction to what I thought I already knew.

Another great source of information on Buddhism was a documentary I watched last night by Werner Herzog called The Wheel of Time. I'm still processing this fantastic film, and will write more about it next week. Until then, at the very least I can highly recommend it!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Still Breathing

Back from another session this evening with the Boundless Way Zen group, and—two weeks after my last blog entry—I am still thinking about breathing and meditation. This week I want to reflect a little bit on the relationship between the practice of conscious breathing and meditation and the more general practices of spirituality and religion.

One of the first pieces of advice you will get about conscious breathing, when you join a meditation group or do some research on your own, is not to worry about the fact that your mind will wander. Focusing on each breath—consciously following the air into your lungs, and then back out again—is designed to help you empty your mind of thought during meditation. That's the design; in reality, as every practitioner knows, your mind wanders.

“Minds think thoughts,” one of the leaders said at the practice session two weeks ago. “That's their job.”

So when you are sitting down and quietly attempting to focus your mind on your breathing, in an effort to empty it of all other thoughts, the first thing you should notice—and it will be reinforced at every future session—is how miserably you are failing. Threads of whatever you were thinking or doing just before you sat down will still be floating around in your head; you'll start to wonder what's for lunch or dinner; if you're in a group session, you'll hear the stomach growling of the person next to you and wonder if they're doing better at this than you are.

All of this might make meditation seem like an impossible task to a beginner. And it might lead to a meditation session in which you simply become more and more frustrated with yourself for your inability to concentrate. Before long, you'll find that you are primarily thinking about what a waste of time meditation has turned out to be.

Experienced meditators, and practitioners of conscious breathing, know all of this. So they encourage new practitioners not to worry about a wandering mind. When your mind wanders away, they will say, just watch it go, and then gently try to call it back to your breathing. This might happen a thousand times over the course of a meditation session. Meditation begins; mind wanders; mind comes back to breathing; mind wanders; mind comes back to breathing . . .

In the end, what you eventually come to realize is that you're almost never—perhaps never at all—going to wind up with sixty or thirty or even ten minutes of complete emptiness of mind, of utter concentration on your breath. You will find you get better and better at it, and that every second spent on your breath pushes away a little bit of anxiety and fear and worry; but you will also find that you'll never stop failing to achieve what you have set out to do.

And, in that respect, meditation and breathing seem to me to offer a good model for how to think about practicing spirituality and religion.

Living spiritually, and faithfully adhering to all of the practices and beliefs of a religious tradition, is hard work. I don't know about everyone else, but I can assure you I'm always failing. I'm never as good of a person as I would like to be; I always find some doctrine or other to disagree with; I'm always finding a good excuse to skip this service or that obligation. For all of those reasons, religion has been as much of a source of frustration in my life as it has been one of comfort and peace.

But I'm starting to believe that maybe I could learn something about religion from what the Zen Buddhists have taught me about breathing—that instead of berating myself for my failings, I need to accept them as inevitable, let them go, and gently call myself back to practice.

Human beings don't live perfect spiritual lives; we are selfish and bodily bound—that's our nature. But instead of using our failure to live up to some spiritual or religious ideal as an excuse to chuck the whole enterprise, we should be assured of the value of even those few moments when we manage to elevate ourselves to something better—that one time when you felt something stir in you during a religious service; or when you acted out of generous love for another; or when you felt suddenly and inexplicably blessed and grateful for something you previously took for granted.

And after such moments of spiritual wholeness or goodness, when we fail again—as we are bound to do—we could do worse than following the example of experienced practitioners of meditation.

Keep breathing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Learning to Breathe

On Friday afternoons I drive for an hour down to Providence, Rhode Island to take tin whistle lessons, and learn more about Irish music, from a woman who is a student at Providence College. She has been playing Irish flute and tin whistle for many years, and plays both in her own band and in festivals and competitions around the area.

A couple of weeks ago we were talking about something related to breathing techniques and the tin whistle, and she paused and said:

“Has anyone ever taught you how to breathe?”

We both kind of paused and then laughed, since of course it sounded like a silly question. I wanted to respond: “I've been doing my own breathing for about forty years now, and I seem to be doing fine.” But I didn't. She went on to explain the difference between breathing from the diaphragm and breathing from the chest, which makes a difference in the pitch of the whistle.

But her question has been on my mind lately, especially after my second session last evening with the Boundless Way Zen Buddhism group (temple grounds pictured above left). Once again we met at Worcester's First Unitarian Church, where the Boundless Way group holds a beginner-friendly Zen practice session on Monday nights.

Since my session last week, when I first received the instruction to help the meditation process by focusing on my breathing, I have been trying to pay more attention to my breathing. The teacher last week told us not to worry so much about where our breath came from—chest or diaphragm—or whether it was deep or shallow or anything else.

“Just follow it,” he said, by which he meant just to pay attention to the air coming and going out. Focus your thoughts on the process of your breath.

This Monday evening, when I sat down, I felt the rewards of my practice during the week. It seemed natural for me to sit there in silence and, as this week's teacher put it, “make a commitment to following your breath.” As I have been learning to follow this practice, I have begun to realize what a powerful and brilliant technique it is to empty and calm your mind.

It's almost impossible to say to yourself, “Stop thinking about X!” and then to actually stop thinking about it. If you've ever felt anxiety or panic, you know this from experience: you want to try to stop your mind, and you keep telling yourself to stop, but your mind doesn't listen. Your very inability to stop your thoughts only makes you more anxious and panicky, creating a vicious cycle that's difficult to escape.

Focusing on your breathing, by contrast, gives your mind something else to do; instead of telling your mind to stop, you're telling it to turn its attention to something else. And of course you are ALWAYS breathing, so you can focus on your breathing for as little or long as you like. I have been finding more and more that in any situation in which I used to feel nervous, anxious, or any other negative emotion, I can just start paying attention to my breathing and almost immediately I find myself relaxing.

Over the past few months, after a health scare in May, I have been struggling to try and comfort some latent feelings of anxiety over the incident and its aftereffects. Whenever I was not concentrating on a specific task, my mind would wander into worry and anxiety over the future, my health, and more. Over the past couple of weeks, though, as I have been working to pay attention to my breathing, I have noticed that whenever my mind begins to wander away from a task, I turn it to my breathing. Almost immediately, I begin to feel those anxieties—and just about every other anxiety I have—melt away.

It seems too good and easy to be true to me at this point. But of course it hasn't been easy. I started meditating back during the summer, and then spent two months sitting in silence with the Quakers. And I have spent several weeks now working to try and pay attention to my breathing. I am just beginning to see the positive effects after all of that time.

From what I have seen and learned in my Buddhist session thus far, I find myself again in a spiritual tradition—much like the Quakers—which puts its emphasis more on spiritual discipline and practice than on adherence to formal creeds. Although both Zen sessions I have attended have included a brief talk, the talk this week essentially suggested that the talks were useless unless they were helping you do what you were already supposed to be doing: focusing on your breath.

I have been doing some reading in the Buddhist tradition, and trying to learn more about how this emphasis on the breath translates into broader spiritual practices, and on how we should live as ethical beings in the world. I will begin to describe what I have found thus far in next week's blog.

I would certainly welcome comments, though, from anyone who may know more than I do—and from anyone who has spent time, as I have in these past few weeks, learning how to breathe.